Five Reasons for Interfaith Empathy at Christmas

Gingerbread Village. Photo, Susan Katz Miller

From the archives. I wrote this essay back in 2010. It feels all the more relevant today! 

In my doctor’s office I heard Christmas music-–three full days before Thanksgiving. The ever-expanding Christmas season is upon us. Why do I call it the Christmas season, not the holiday season? I love Hanukkah, my kids love Hanukkah. But honestly, no one calls it the “Hanukkah season.” Hanukkah is just not that big a deal.

Christmas is a big deal. Every year, our interfaith families groupdiscusses how to integrate two sets of “seasonal” expectations, and how to empathize with each other as we do this. The Jewish partners work on understanding which Christmas rituals feed the souls of their Christian partners. The Christian partners work on understanding the Jewish mix of underdog pride and alienation. Each interfaith couple must come up with their own balance of accommodations, but also, their own ways of pouring new life and creativity into old forms.

This year, I distilled the elements of this perennial interfaith Christmas discussion into five topics:

1. The Music. For many Christians, the music that permeates malls and airwaves starting this week provides essential nostalgia and anticipation. One woman raised Catholic spoke of tracking down the Johnny Cash and Elvis Presley holiday songs that her father brought home from Viet Nam on a reel-to-reel tape. What could be more heart-warming? But then, a man raised Jewish spoke up about experiencing his Jewish home as a refuge from the onslaught of “Christmas bling” and holiday music in malls, radio, school concerts. While some Jews enjoy the Christmas spirit, others hear carols and feel wistful and excluded.

So, some Jewish partners develop a taste for instrumental Christmas jazz but continue to reject the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. Other interfaith families, despairing of lame traditional Hanukkah songs, are exploring the hipster Klezmer revival. Still other families negotiate a deal where traditional Christmas music is reserved for Christmas day.

2. The Lights. What could be bad about a “secular” display of sparkling cheer to dispel the darkest nights? But for many interfaith families, the line gets drawn here. My parents have been intermarried more than fifty years, and have a gargantuan tree and oyster stew and roast goose, but never lights outside. For some Jews, blinking lights signal “this house is Christian” to the neighbors. As one intermarried Jewish woman declared, “If we’re celebrating both, I’m okay with announcing that to the world with lights.”

3. The Creche. The nativity scene is, understandably, completely beyond the pale for interfaith families raising Jewish children. Some intermarried Jews never become terribly comfortable talking about Jesus, let alone seeing him in a Playmobil manger. Others see the celebration of the birth of an important Jew as less problematic than the celebration of his resurrection at Easter. For those raising children with both religions, a creche brings the actual story of the birth of Jesus into what could otherwise be a secular or only vaguely religious holiday.

4. The Tree. Much has been written about the tree. It’s Pagan, It’s an embarrassing reminder of assimilationist Hanukkah bushes. More than one interfaith couple tiptoes into the tradition with a tiny live rosemary tree in a pot from Whole Foods. Another Jewish spouse admits he’s been enjoying a Christmas tree for decades, but has never told his parents about it. Others manage to mix the Christian and Jewish in-laws together at tree-trimming parties.

5. The Food. Our rabbi calls Christmas “the most Jewish of the Christian holidays” because it centers on an elaborate home-cooked meal. For this reason, he compares Christmas not to Hanukkah, but to Passover. So eating and talking with the family, what’s not to like? But one Jewish partner bashfully admits, “Now that I’m in an interfaith family and we celebrate Christmas, I kind of miss the Jewish tradition of going to the movies and then going out for Chinese, bonding with other Jews doing that.” A Christian partner from another couple adapted this tradition to her own purposes: “I really wasn’t interested in spending all of Christmas day cooking, like my mother always did. So in our house, we open the stockings and presents, then go out for Chinese with all the Jewish families.” For this interfaith family, it’s the best of both worlds.

Journalist Susan Katz Miller is an interfaith families speaker, consultant, and coach, and author of Being Both: Embracing Two Religions in One Interfaith Family (2015), and The Interfaith Family Journal (forthcoming in 2019). Follow her on twitter @susankatzmiller.Advertisements

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4 Replies to “Five Reasons for Interfaith Empathy at Christmas”

  1. Thelma ZirkelbachNOVEMBER 23, 2010 AT 1:32 PM EDITOh, this is delightful. Negotiating same-time-of-year rituals is always interesting. I could never handle a Christmas tree, although we hung stockings on Christmas Eve. And yes, the movie and Chinese are an absolute must Christmas Day tradition for my family, one that my kids have continued since my husband’s death.Reply
  2. Mandy KatzNOVEMBER 23, 2010 AT 4:04 PM EDITSue, what a fun post! And refreshingly un-prescriptive. I doubt there’s a Jewish-Christian couple in the world that wouldn’t find something to identify with here. For me, it’s sharing your parents indoor-outdoor schizophrenia on Christmas traditions. I, too, notwithstanding the gaudy, ceiling-scratching tree inside, say, “No way, Moishe,” to lights in the windows and on the shrubs. Thanks!Reply
    1. Christine IntagliataNOVEMBER 24, 2010 AT 1:40 PM EDITAnd in our Jewish/Jew-by-choice household, there’s never a tree, but I lovingly hang blue “Chanukah lights” every year . . . inside, but where you can see them through the windows. I love to turn off the regular lights and sit in the blue glow. And I know that’s Christmas nostalgia!Reply
  3. ipondereugeniaDECEMBER 2, 2010 AT 8:43 PM EDITA very well written and detailed article and interface holidays. thank you – I will forward it to my friends living in such families.
    Warm regards
    Eugenia Budman
    shewrites.Reply

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Passover and Good Friday, 2018

Spring purple crocus
Photo, Susan Katz Miller

In both Christianity and Judaism, the dates for the major spring holidays are guided by an intricate dance of the moon and the sun–the lunisolar calendar. This means Passover and Holy Week (from Palm Sunday to Easter Sunday) often overlap. And this year, Good Friday and the first Passover Seder fall on the same night, maximizing the logistical challenges for interfaith families who celebrate both religions. (I first wrote about this convergence in 2012, and again in 2015).

Theologically, many interfaith families experience more cognitive dissonance in the spring, when Passover and Holy Week overlap, than they do in December, with Hanukkah and Christmas. The idea that the Last Supper was a Passover Seder is tantalizing, though historically debatable. But for Jews, this idea may also raise the red flag of supersessionism—the problematic idea that Judaism was simply a starter religion in the evolution of Christianity.

The contrasting moods of Passover and Good Friday may also contribute to the dissonance. Good Friday is a solemn commemoration of the crucifixion and death of Jesus. A Passover Seder is a joyous celebration of the exodus from slavery in Egypt, involving feasting and drinking. (Though this joy may be tempered by acknowledging the violence of the plagues, frustration over the long history of Middle Eastern conflict, and the ongoing effects of slavery and colonial oppression worldwide).

Meanwhile, in the realm of the practical, both Passover and Good Friday involve culinary restrictions. And they are both traditionally marked in the evening. So the overlap this year may pose a greater logistical challenge than the overlap of Passover and Easter (which is celebrated mainly in the morning and afternoon).

So, how to honor both, with grace under pressure? Keep in mind that every family celebration, especially when there are small children involved, is going to be imperfect. As inspiration, I offer the words of multifaith bard Leonard Cohen: “Forget your perfect offering. There is a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.”

Below, I suggest some possible strategies for this year:

  1. Move the Seder. Many Jewish families celebrate multiple Seders–before, during, and even after the official eight days of Passover. If Christian family members want to fast and attend church on the night of Good Friday this year, consider shifting the first Seder to Saturday night. Some families might even wait to have a Seder on Sunday or Monday night, when the mood will be more festive for both Jewish and Christian family members.
  2. Adapt the Seder. Some Christians may be fine with going to a noon service on Good Friday, and then a first Seder on Friday night. And some interfaith families will feel they must hold the first Seder on the traditional date. In this case, it would be thoughtful to adapt the Seder main dish, if your Christian family members are avoiding meat for the Good Friday fast. So, salmon instead of brisket? Or, explain to extended family ahead of time that your Christian family members may skip the brisket and wine, but partake of the matzoh-charoset-horseradish sandwich and matzoh ball soup, egg and parsley.
  3. Adapt Easter. Whether you have your first Seder on Friday, Saturday, Sunday, or later, look for ways to make Easter easier for Jewish family members. For breakfast, we like to make matzoh brei (eggs scrambled with matzoh) instead of the traditional Easter pancakes—the savory protein dish offsets the sugar rush of Easter candy. And at Easter dinner, my interfaith family serves lamb, a Passover tradition in many Sephardic homes, rather than ham. (Be aware that there is a big debate about whether and what kind of lamb you can eat at Passover). Avoiding ham reduces the culinary dissonance, even in a family like mine that doesn’t keep kosher the rest of the year.
  4. Curate. Trying to reenact every single family Passover and Easter tradition in one weekend may cause parents and children to melt down like Peeps in the microwave. Every family, whether monofaith or interfaith, curates the family traditions they want to preserve, and sets aside others. So, as much as I loved the idea of the Easter cake made in the shape of a lamb, we skip this tradition. I don’t love cake made from matzoh meal, and the idea of cutting into a lamb cake always bothered my vegetarian daughter. Our preferred dessert for the weekend is matzoh toffee brittle. On the other hand, we always make space for dying eggs. We’re a family of artists, and it pleases me that the hard-boiled egg is connected to both holidays.

As always, creating successful family holidays depends on putting yourself in the shoes of others, and clear communication. If a strategy works for you, try to tune out the self-proclaimed experts telling you that you are doing it wrong. Be confident in the knowledge that the different ways to celebrate together are as numerous as the leaves of spring grass.

Journalist Susan Katz Miller is an interfaith families speaker, consultant, and coach, and author of Being Both: Embracing Two Religions in One Interfaith Family (2015), and The Interfaith Family Journal (2019). Follow her on twitter @susankatzmiller.

A Hanukkah Surprise for Interfaith Mom

Menorah Pin

Hanukkah feels strange and slightly melancholy this year, with our firstborn away at college. With only one teenager left at home, I declared the official end to kids hunting for little Hanukkah gifts hidden under sofa cushions and behind bookcases. My son was fine with this. Adults rarely give each other Hanukkah gifts in my extended family, and he is well on his way to becoming an adult. But as it turns out, I did not actually have the authority to make this abrupt and unilateral proclamation. Just because I represent the Jewish side in our interfaith family does not make me the boss of Hanukkah.

So after we lit candles and said blessings and sang “Rock of Ages” on the second night, my (Christian) husband surprised me by saying he had hidden little Hanukkah gifts for me and our son. I was touched, and irrationally excited: I hadn’t hunted for a present since I was a kid and my (Christian) mom instituted this Hanukkah tradition in our family.

My bemused son and I quickly located the little tissue paper packets–in a clay pot on the mantel, and on the windowsill behind the curtains. They turned out to be utterly fabulous, completely cheesy blinking LED Hanukkah pins–a menorah and a dreidel. I wore them both at a Hanukkah party the next night.

So my husband created a moment of role-reversal comedy (mom acting like a kid and receiving a goofy “kid” present). At the same time, he distracted us all from missing our college girl. And he paid sweet tribute to the interfaith family created when we got married 25 years ago, and to the tradition instituted by my pioneering interfaith parents, who are still happily married after more than 50 years. Such small gestures, combining tradition and innovation, respect and humor, bind interfaith families together.

 

Journalist Susan Katz Miller is an interfaith families speaker, consultant, and coach, and author of Being Both: Embracing Two Religions in One Interfaith Family (2015), and The Interfaith Family Journal (forthcoming in 2019). Follow her on twitter @susankatzmiller.